The Scottish Qualification Authority, our nation’s government-sponsored examination and qualification body, run the vast majority of exams in almost all of Scotland’s schools. That significant governmental bond brings with it both the funding and accountability necessary for its operation, but also results in unwanted brushes with party politics. This makes it difficult for those of us outside the system to know what drives decisions and why.

And 2020 has been a year for decisions.

The SQA’s “gold standard”1 qualification, the Higher, is the unit of currency in university applications, with Advanced Higher being a level up broadly equivalent to A-Levels. But the National 5, our nation’s GCSE if you ike, remains a benchmark qualification for many school leavers.

A Brief History of the 2020 SQA Exams

Whatever your views on the springtime national lockdown in response to COVID-19 - whether measures went far enough and were implemented soon enough, or went too far or for too long - one of the casualties was the 2020 diet of exams delivered by the SQA.

Instead certification was to based on teacher estimates and statistically moderated by the SQA, but was ultimately rolled back to teacher estimates based on public and media outrage and significant political pressure.

2021 SQA National 5 Exams Cancelled

On the back of the 2020 results climb down Professor Mark Priestley, of Stirling University, was asked to carry out an independent review of the events and decisions which led us to that point, and make recommendations for the session ahead. The published report recommended the cancellation of National 5 exams in 2021 as well as the “development of a nationally recognised, fully transparent and proportionate system for moderation of centre-based assessment” - details of which are still to be published.

Our Deputy First Minister, John Swinney, went all in on these recommendations:

“Given the real risk of further disruption to education, it would not be sensible or fair to plan for a full exam diet in 2021. Coronavirus has not gone away. If anything, it is making a comeback.”

John Swinney, parliamentary statement, 7 October 2020

So, to be absolutely clear, “it would not be sensible or fair to plan for a full exam diet”. The National 5 exams were cancelled and are be replaced by a moderated teacher-derived estimates similar to the 2020 exams, while Higher and Advanced Higher qualifications will continue with amendments made to content, question papers, and/or assignments in almost all subjects.2

Whether you agree with the approach or not, the logic is easily followed. Reduce the load on the SQA, schools (and other centres), and all of our students. It allows schools take stock of the difficulties of recent months and also cope with what what, at the very least, is an uncertain future regarding possible future lockdowns and absences - of both students and staff. It lowers the stress on students, who have a growing uncertainly about what qualifications they might eventually leave school with or how they might best prepare for future Highers. It supports teachers around the country who are having to adapt to significantly different work patterns and demands, come what may.

The lockdown experience of students varied widely around the country. Some schools were able to lean heavily on technology already deployed and developed, while others were scrambling to keep up. Many schools ran “live” lessons or provided vital pastoral support with suddenly essential tools of the pandemic: Google Meet, Microsoft Teams, and Zoom. Some were fortunate enough to have a near-normal “attendance” rate.

But the anecdote is strong in this story. From hearing from friends who are also parents, many of their children got assigned as little as one hour of unsupervised work each week while school buildings were closed. And those that are teachers report as little as 10% of their classes engaged with any activity throughout lockdown.

Schools faced different challenges during lockdown, and no one solution will address all of the arising issues. Time to identify and react to their own local problems is arguably vital for each school’s community. And that is before we consider what the next six months will bring?

2021 SQA National 5 Exams - Cancelled?

However, when the SQA started publishing their guidance, the warning bells began ringing.

In the generic guidance for generating estimates republished for this session, the SQA have this to say about prelim exams:

Prelims or mock exams: These are likely to be the most reliable indicator of performance in a question paper, particularly if they are undertaken in the same conditions as the question paper. The most convincing examples of these will accurately predict attainment in the skills, knowledge, and understanding assessed by the question paper. They will be clearly aligned to the course specification, content, and level of demand as exemplified in the specimen question papers and past papers.

This is supported by clear statements in the subject-specific guidance which followed. In English:

You can generate the most valid evidence for question paper components using assessment instruments which replicate, as far as possible, the standard, duration, format and security of SQA question papers.

In Maths:

The closer the internal evidence is to the standard, format and duration of the course assessment, the more reliable it should be.

And in both:

Evidence should be gathered later in the course, as a realistic reflection of a candidate’s attainment.

So, are we to take from this guidance that to best provide the most reliable estimates for the cancelled exams that we would be best to provide an assessment as close to the end of the course as possible, which mimics the content and structure as closely as possible?

What makes this all the more frustrating is that the SQA’s National Qualifications 2021 Group published an update this week stating:

Given current public health advice and to maximise learning and teaching time, it is important to stress that there is no expectation that schools and colleges hold a formal diet of prelims for National 5. One of the key reasons for moving to an alternative model was to create additional teaching time through removing the need for prelims and replacing the final examination diet with more flexible classroom-based assessment.

The rhetoric tells us that schools have been freed from the constraints of a National 5 examination diet which will allow teachers and students to recover from significant disruption to schools, and to cope with the uncertainty of the coming months. The devil in the detail is that schools have been strongly encouraged to implement an internal National 5 examination diet to provide estimates for these very same qualifications.

The difficulty is that this is almost certainly going to be more work for teachers, and adds even greater uncertainty for all students currently enrolled in National 5 courses.


  1. I have heard it mentioned so many times, Highers being the “gold standard” qualification in Scotland, but right now I can’t find a source or significant reference. [return]
  2. Even Highers are not guaranteed to take place at this point in time. [return]

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